I still have shelves of books and computer files of old content, all attesting to the importance of the Third Place (Ray Oldenburg’s Great Good Place, Leon Kreitzman’s 24 Hour Society, etc).
Bookshops have always offered sanctuary, but in the 1990s, they started to offer more. In the US, Borders and Barnes & Noble starting adding cafes to their newfangled superstores; in the UK, Books etc was rolling cafes into its mall stores; and on both sides of the pond, adventurous independents were doing the same. Sometimes the cafes were corporate – B&N signed with Starbucks to serve their coffee when Starbucks was still small. Sometimes, by contrast, the cafe operation was determinedly handmade and wholemeal.
Either way, cafes changed bookstores. You could argue that they saved bookstores, in that they broadened the customer base, and made the bookstore into a place to meet as well as a place to browse or shop.
Or you could argue that it was cafes that ruined bookstores, pushing them into the mass-market and eliminating their spiritual calm in a clatter of crockery and fizzing espresso machines; that the traffic coffeeshops were generating inside bookstores pushed the chains into bigger sites – more prime pitch, more expensive, and ultimately more ruinous.
But the simple fact is that a cafe gives a bookshop its community hook. Once there is a meeting place within the shop, then the opportunities for customers to visit increase exponentially. The customer who buys a coffee in your store everyday is more likely to use you for their book and magazine purchases. They will start to feel a sense of “belonging” – they have invested time in the bookshop, they approve of its atmosphere, its range, its staff, it becomes in some way theirs.
A golden age ensued in the nineties and the noughties. Bookshops are odd places. They encourage extended browsing, and customers don’t feel cheated if they spend an hour in the store and buy nothing. This may be the case with large fashion boutiques, or with record shops, but both of these store types appeal to a specific customer. A good general bookshop, on the other hand, provides something for every literate member of the community. One of the reasons Borders appealed to landlords in the UK was that it provided a centre of interest and excitement for all the family, helping to turn the retail park visit, with Dad at B&Q and Mum in Next, into a proper family outing.
The existence of the cafe made all sorts of other peripherals much easier to organise – the book club, the author reading, the extended opening hours, the children’s story-time. Mother-and-baby groups spontaneously formed in bookshop cafes – friendships were made, and store loyalty sealed.
Now, the golden age is over. Bookshops are disappearing, and the community facility that they provided is disappearing as well. Of course, cafes will survive – standalone Costas in retail parks, grim no-name eateries in giant supermarkets – but the bookstore cafe was more relaxed and less clattery than the dedicated food’n’beverage venue.
All of this is taking place precisely when all of us in the Big Society (however ill-defined that may be) would benefit from meeting places flexible enough to meet our community-enhancing needs.
Now would be a great time to reinvent the library. I wholeheartedly support the principles behind the libraries campaign currently being fought in England, but I also recognise the inescapable fact that demand for physical books is going to fall, probably quite precipitately. The campaign for the library as book provider is starting to look quixotic.
A smart Big Society would support a variety of community venues – church halls, pubs, libraries, basic entertainment venues – like the campaign for Vital Kingston, with which I’m involved. This isn’t a political blog. But if Mr Cameron et al do want to encourage and support community involvement and ownership (in the broadest sense), where better place to start?
Amidst the sector’s well-publicised travails, hard-working store teams continue to open their doors and invite the public in. I popped into my local Waterstone’s yesterday, and was reminded about what bookstores do well – and how different the process of consuming literature (“the process of consuming literature”? – what a revolting concept) will be once everything has been digitised.
Chains and independents do different things, or different versions of the same thing. Waterstone’s has to deliver a corporate offer, and I thought the suite of promotions installed for February was pretty much spot-on for the market.
Three promos, none of them rocket science:
1. The Valentine’s offer – mandatory to every retailer this side of Kwik-Fit. An informed selection of appropriate titles, literary enough not to disgrace the brand, supported by a handful of sensibly priced DVDs, cards and other gift items. An on-brand Emma Bridgewater gift bag completes the offer. Some good, loved-up POS to support the offer, though perhaps the product could have been merched (“shrined” as we used to say at Borders) together to better effect. 14th February this year is a Monday, which, given the British Male’s aptitude for forward planning, should make for a great retail weekend.
2. Reading Group favourites – absolutely the right time of the year for this promo; the customers have got all those “new year/new you” concepts out of their hair, but the evenings are still dark – time to reanimate the reading groups. Nice title selection, a combination of the tried-and-tested and some less obvious stuff. Multibuy, of course. Are reading groups encouraged to contact each other through Waterstone’s (this branch is too small for them to meet in)?
3. Sebastian Faulks on Fiction, the lead title plus a core stock selection of the characters discussed in the upcoming BBC Two series. The media coverage will be excellent, and there are always good reasons to promote Becky Sharp, Sherlock Holmes or John Self to new readers.
Three good, strong chain bookstore promotions. The bigger and busier the shop, I hope the greater the opportunity for booksellers to recommend, promote, face-out, table-up and hand-sell their favourite titles, in addition to the centrally-driven promos.
The service in the store was great – cheerful, helpful, informed but not pushy. The customer feels that they are among friends. Result – I bought four books, having gone in without any one title in mind.
And, returning to my first paragraph, what other strand of book retailing can do this? Anyone can jump on a promotional bandwagon, and an online bookseller can add whistles and bells to Faulks, for instance, by drawing my attention to every Jeeves title, rather than just the 1-2 that the bookstore has in the core promo. Sometimes, though, the choice online is stifling – my brain can’t handle so much variety, so I’ll stick with what I’m most familiar with. The serendipity of the bookshop is difficult to replicate.
As bookstores start to go the way of coaching inns, I’ll return in future posts to “what bookstores do well”. Looking forward, I’ll acknowledge that online, digital and supermarkets have their strengths too. They’d better have, if they’re going to deliver all my future literature consumption process needs. Watch this space.
Tip of the hat to Mark Schneyer for inadvertently inspiring this post.